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Know the West

More prime sage grouse habitat is open for drilling

The Trump administration will allow oil and gas leasing in key sagebrush lands.


The Trump administration has been making it easier for oil and gas companies to drill wells in prime habitat for greater sage grouse. At the end of the year, the Bureau of Land Management officially rewrote important guidance for field staff in charge of leasing parcels of federal land for future oil and gas drilling. But statistics show the staff had already gotten that message: Federal leasing in sage grouse habitat increased dramatically in Wyoming last year and likely will expand further this year.

The BLM plans to offer seven times more acres of sage grouse habitat in its first quarter lease sale in Wyoming this year than it did in its first quarter lease sale last year, according to BLM data analyzed by The Nature Conservancy and confirmed by the BLM. “Once the lands are leased, that limits options for protection of this habitat,” says Holly Copeland, the conservation scientist who analyzed the data. Although environmental groups filed protests in March and September last year against leasing in key sage grouse areas in Wyoming, the BLM rejected them, emphasizing President Donald Trump’s March executive order on energy and economic growth.

Sage grouse on a lek in breeding season in Fremont County, Wyoming.

As Trump pushes for greater energy production, his administration is altering the delicate balance between energy development and grouse protections that had been established as a result of an unprecedented 2015 agreement between Western states, conservation groups, industry and the federal government. That collaboration kept greater sage grouse from being listed as an endangered species, which would have required much more stringent protections.

Late last month, the BLM’s Obama-era instructions for oil and gas leasing in sage grouse habitat were rewritten. The original instructions prioritized leasing in areas that don’t offer good sage grouse habitat. As a result, since 2015, the BLM had refused to offer many leases requested by industry because of concerns for sage grouse. (For example, the first quarter 2017 lease sale, prepared under the Obama administration, withheld 46 parcels of federal land from future drilling.)

By contrast, the new version of the instructions emphasizes: “In effect, the BLM does not need to lease and develop outside of (greater sage grouse) habitat management areas before considering any leasing and development within (greater sage grouse) habitat.” Wyoming has the most and best sagebrush habitat of any state and nearly 40 percent of the remaining birds, but in its December lease sale, BLM Wyoming withheld only three parcels because of sage grouse. Thirty-eight of 41 parcels sold were in sage grouse habitat.

Under the old instructions, energy companies were often frustrated, says Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an industry trade group. “What’s important is the previous instruction memorandum put leases and permits at the bottom of the pile if they were in priority habitat,” she says. “This does not.”

But advocates for the bird’s conservation accuse the Trump administration of ignoring the science that drove the 2015 sage grouse agreement. “That was the biggest landscape-scale conservation plan we’ve ever done,” says Brian Rutledge, a biologist with the National Audubon Society who has worked on sage grouse conservation for 14 years. Although changes should be expected, he says, “the changes need to be done with science in mind. The Department of Interior is trying to do as little as possible for the land and animals in their care, placing at risk the future of that landscape and that ecosystem.”

State officials, however, downplay the new guidance. “We didn’t have any issues with it,” says John Swartout, energy advisor to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. “The change in guidance means little compared to any potential change in the plans.”

Oil and gas leases in key sage grouse habitat will still come with protective restrictions, notes Bob Budd, who chairs Wyoming Governor Mead’s sage grouse implementation team. For instance, permits prohibit companies from disturbing the ground on or near a lek, where sage grouse gather for mating displays. “We were leasing in core areas before this,” he says. “It’s how you do it, not where you do it.” Industry officials agree, saying there is no need to limit leasing because modern drilling techniques allow companies to reach oil and gas deposits from a mile or two away.

But scientists find many negative impacts on the birds’ survival even when companies follow rules such as building roads at least .6 miles away from leks and refraining from drilling during mating and nesting seasons. Several scientists assert in Energy Development and Wildlife Conservation in Western North America, a 2011 book, “It has become apparent that sage-grouse conservation and energy development are incompatible in the same landscapes.”

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington.